Cell Phone Mergers, Did They Help Us or Hurt Us?

Cell Phone Company Mergers and Buyouts- Does bigger mean better and have they made things easier or more difficult for today's wireless consumers?

Nextel used to be “How Business Got Done”. It also used to be the only cell phone provider to offer an exclusive PTT (Push to Talk) feature, which was a phone with a built-in walkie talkie that worked on its cellular network. With Cingular Wireless becoming one of the last carriers to get into the Push to Talk arena, the last major differentiating factor to the consumer that once separated wireless carriers is disappearing. Wireless carriers on the front end are becoming more homogeneous and it is increasingly difficult to tell which cell phone carrier offers what unique or niche service. Even their rate plan offerings are the same. It used to be that Nextel was known for “walkie talkie”, Sprint was the first to introduce the coolest data enabled phones, Verizon Wireless was known for working in rural areas or any place that other services did not, Cingular had all the “free phones” and a technically challenged cellular network and T-Mobile being the only GSM (Global System for Mobility) carrier offered an international phone. The former and original and now new AT&T Wireless and was the first wireless carrier to come out with the Digital One Rate, a national calling plan with roaming included. It then tried to “Raise the Bar’ with its acquisition by Cingular Wireless. Nextel is ‘How Business Gets Done’ was bought by Sprint ‘Free and Clear’. Verizon wants to know if you can hear them now, as after a very long run in first place, they are now the #2 wireless carrier in the market place behind once ATT Wireless then Cingular Wireless now ATT again. But given that the service is only as good as the network by the 4th quarter of 2007 you may see them Verizon reclaim their spot as the #1 Wireless Provider in the U.S. And currently rounding out the bottom of the list it seems that T-Mobile is constantly giving more in order to ‘Get More’ market share.

With the mergers and buyouts, we all know that bigger does not always mean better. A case in point is demonstrated in what it is like dealing with the ‘Old’ Cingular Wireless now 'ATT Mobility' after their merger with AT&T Wireless and Sprint and Nextel. While carriers are trying to appear homogenous on the front end, their back end protocols and practices are still as complex as ever before. A once confused customer care, is now even more confused, having to manage different technologies, carrier specific programs, rate plan names, management styles and other idiosyncrasies of each wireless carrier. Each Carrier had slightly different ways of doing the same procedures, multiply this by hundreds of departments and this becomes a mess for both customers and dealers alike to navigate through. Take for example the process of verifying an account via calling into customer care. The Cingular Wireless infrastructure now does this is in the most bureaucratic and arcane way.

All of this reflects their completely consumer driven back end customer relationship management systems. They purchased AT&T Wireless for all their corporate accounts but have yet to adopt procedures for dealing with corporate customers. If you cannot exactly identify the account name as it reads on the account, then you cannot do anything on the account even if you wanted to pay a past due bill. Essentially your phones would have to be turned off for non-payment before they would be open to accepting payment without proper account name verification. Naturally this would allow them to collect their past due amount, plus the late fees, plus the reactivation fee per phone. They say that they verify accounts this way for security reasons and for protection of the account holder and given the amount of fraud that exists in the wireless industry, it is both understandable and good practice. However, the problem is not with the message but with the messenger. They do not offer another solution to verify the account which in most cases can be easily implemented, as the customer care reps already have email access in place, they could easily send over a confirmation email or if need be change of responsibility form to a master email address at the corporation, the former point of contact. Or if the company did not use email, they could mail or fax a form to the business address on file. For business customers a simple required task before the customer care rep can do anything further on the account can be quite a nightmare especially in the major corporate and government sectors where account administrators turn over frequently and many accounts exist in organizations all with slightly different names, an acronym, a sub-account and in the worse case scenario, the carrier itself may have abbreviated the name if it exceeded the amount of characters allowed in the field when they originally set up the account.

Former true ‘blue’ AT&T Wireless customers are dealing with the brunt of this, as their account verification system was different & better, offering alternative ways to validate the account such as with an account number, the correct billing address and the last 4 digits of a social security or tax id number. The combination of the carrier specific protocols, lack of training on every level, their use of the same confusing billing format (usually written by programmers and not by telecomm specialists and actual end users) and consumers becoming more sophisticated buyers is making the wireless market more complex as opposed to more less so.

Until carriers in general realize that increasing market share and gaining customer loyalty also should mean a new easy to read bill, a proactive (not reactive) customer care team and knowledgeable and hands-on sales representative, the customer experience in dealing with their cell phone provider is going to continue to deteriorate and the cell phone providers will unfortunately all remain the same in that aspect. Thanks for holding, how may I help you?

© 2005, Group Interactive, Inc. Shonika Proctor is the New ‘IT’ Girl and 14 year veteran. She is revolutionizing the next generation of wireless customer care and help desk support. Her company provides tips, tools and products that help confused and techo-phobic cellular users to overcome their most challenging wireless frustrations, www.cell-phone-account-help.com

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